Day 78: Megalomania

Ashgabat Travel Blog

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Azadi Mosque - think it looks familiar? That is because it was built by a Turkish company as a smaller copy of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Arthur (Germany)

I checked out of my hotel (at least I got my money back) and went to Arthur's place. I could stay in his flat tonight, so I wouldn't have to spend another night in a bug infested hotel.

Last night I had told Arthur of my plans to take an overnight tour into the desert, rather than just crossing it in a day by taxi or bus. As I have only 5 days here I want to make the most out of my visit and see as much of the country as I can. Even though a tour costs $ 250, whereas a shared taxi would not cost more than $ 10 (or alternatively I could fly to the bordertown of Dashogus for $ 17!!!)
Arthur liked the idea and had decided to join me. He hadn't seen anything of the country yet, so this was a good opportunity for him.

One of the many golden domes in Ashgabat - looks better in black & white, actually
I had received a quote from a travel agency yesterday, but he knew another one so we decided to check that one as well to compare prices.

To my surprise the phone was answered by a Dutch lady. She happened to know Arthur's flatmate and even knew who Arthur was, despite not having met him. The expat community in this country is so small that everybody knows everybody.

We decided to go ahead with this agency and went to the agency to book it. Unfortunately it turned out that Arthur's visa does not allow him to travel to the border regions, so he would not be able to come to Konye-Urgench and Dashogus with me. He decided to come along for the first day anyway and find some kind of transport back to Ashgabat the next morning.
Modern video walls showing 24/7 propaganda
In this country every car is a taxi, so that shouldn't be too hard.

Then it was time to explore the city. First we went to Independence Square, where I had already been yesterday, only now we walked the whole length of the Soviet era park towards the university building. Here the true extend of the presidents' (former and present) megalomania became clear. The university building doesn't look all that old, but nonetheless a new one , occupying three city blocks, is being built right next to it. The new university is huge, and all shining white marble and gold. Across the road is the Presidential palace which is getting a makeover, being expanded to about twice the original size. Why, one might ask, since the president doesn't even live here. He lives up in the mountains where the climate is nicer.
Apartment blocks in Berzingi


We hired a taxi for a few hours to drive around in the Berzingi district. This is the completely artificial, surreal district which was the icing on the cake for former president Niyazov's city planning. All white marble palaces interspersed with monuments, fountains and parks. Ashgabat lies in the middle of the desert, so obviously there are dozens of fountains in the city, even though half the population here doesn't even have running water at home!

Berzingi is so absurd, so over the top, it is unlike anywhere else in the world. And the white marble city is not even ugly, on the contrary, but it is just completely useless. The buildings are either ministries, apartment complexes, office blocks, hotels or just empty façades. And because of the restriction on signs or advertisement in the city it is very hard to tell what is what from the outside.
The Altyn Asyr Shopping Mall, the largest fountain in the world

There used to be a village here, but the people living in the area were all displaced, with very little compensation provided to them.

The Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) shopping centre is one of those places. The taxi driver had no idea where it was and when we finally got there there was no sign on the building saying it was a shopping centre. The building is shaped like a pyramid and has water flowing down on all four sides, making it the largest fountain in the world. Inside everything is empty. There are stores and the stores have staff, but there are no customers. Not a single one. Nobody is buying anything here.

We tried to take the elevator up to the top floor to have a look at the area, but this was not allowed. In fact, it seems nowhere in the city is there an opportunity to get a bird's eye view.
Independence Monument in all its glory
The Arch of Neutrality is closed, and everywhere else the top floors (or entering any building, in fact) are reserved for officials. There used to be a cable car going up the 1200m peak that overlooks the city, but the $60 million cable car, built only in 2006, has broken down and there seems little intention of repairing it. Guess I have to look this city up on Google Earth to get a good idea of its layout.

A bit further we stopped at the Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan, which looks like a giant toilet plunger. The monument is surrounded by several pretty cool iron statues depicting various types of Turkmen tribes. The biggest and brashest statue is reserved for Niyazov though, his golden statue radiating in the sun atop a large fountain.

Beyond the Independence Park is a long strip of big hotels.
One of the many (empty) boutique hotels in Berzingi
Most of them are boutique hotels, with no more than 20-50 suites. None of them having any actual guests. Staying here would mean you are way, way out of the city. And besides that, Turkmenistan is such a closed country, who would come here? There are no international conferences being held and the handful of tourists and business travellers that do come here will all stay in the city centre. So the point of these hotels? Beats me.

We drove towards the Kopet Dag mountains, to the starting point of one of Niyazov's most idiosyncratic projects: the walk of health. While the idea is great, several walks through the lower hills of the Kopet Dag, the execution is as ridiculous as everything else in this city. The entire length of both walks (8km and 37km respectively) is made out of concrete and marble steps.
Walk of Health
There is nothing 'nature' about this walk at all. And walking the walk is compulsory for all students, soldiers, ministers and civil workers, who have to walk the walk once or twice a year at national holidays.
We decided we were lazy today and did not walk the walk (it was too hot anyway) and went back to the city.

I liked all of this though. I guess I have a thing for megalomania. I am one of the few who thinks the seven Stalin towers in Moscow are actually quite pretty. Similarly, I think the white marble city that Niyazov created actually has some merit. Notwithstanding the fact that it is awful for all those people who saw their neighbourhoods razed to the ground in order to make room for the palaces

Other ridiculous buildings and sights in the city included an Olympic stadium (just when the Olympic games will be held here, I don't know), a huge Ice Rink (we're in the desert, so it makes sense to build an ice rink, right?) and the best of all: Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales.
Mural outside Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales, depicting the highlights of Turkmenistan.
Tom, the English guy I had met at the hostel in Yerevan, had told me about this. Opened in 2006, it is already dilapidated with half the rides not working any more. Safety doesn't seem to have much priority either as some of the rides did not seem to have any safety bars.
To be honest, it is not as bad as it sounds. The way I heard Tom talk about it I expected some really gritty place, you know, like the fairground in Chernobyl. But it wasn't like that, in fact, this place seemed more alive than the theme park I visited in Tbilisi. At least this one had visitors! The locals seem to love it. No wonder, there is very little entertainment in this city, and with an entrance fee of $0.07 plus $0.19 per ride, at least it is something people can actually afford in this county (unlike the shiny new apartments which are being built in this city).
Roller coaster at Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales
How the $ 50 million park is ever supposed to make a profit is another question, of course.

The locals call it Disneyland, but in fact, the real Disneyland is just beyond the confines of the park. The buildings in Berzingi and the centre of Ashgabat all look like they belong on a film set, or, in fact, in Disneyland.

dukeBG says:
All that reminds me of Orwell's '1984'...
Posted on: Aug 09, 2010
edsander says:
You know ... I actually really like the weird thematic and futuristic architecture of all these buildings and monuments. It's definitely unique a quite a change from the normal sights.
Posted on: Aug 08, 2010
Biedjee says:
Yup, I liked the one in Warsaw too.
Posted on: Aug 07, 2010
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Azadi Mosque - think it looks fami…
Azadi Mosque - think it looks fam…
One of the many golden domes in As…
One of the many golden domes in A…
Modern video walls showing 24/7 pr…
Modern video walls showing 24/7 p…
Apartment blocks in Berzingi
Apartment blocks in Berzingi
The Altyn Asyr Shopping Mall, the …
The Altyn Asyr Shopping Mall, the…
Independence Monument in all its g…
Independence Monument in all its …
One of the many (empty) boutique h…
One of the many (empty) boutique …
Walk of Health
Walk of Health
Mural outside Turkmenbashis World…
Mural outside Turkmenbashi's Worl…
Roller coaster at Turkmenbashis W…
Roller coaster at Turkmenbashi's …
Azadi Mosque
Azadi Mosque
Inside the Azadi mosque
Inside the Azadi mosque
Inside the Azadi mosque
Inside the Azadi mosque
Just another modest bust of Turkme…
Just another modest bust of Turkm…
One of the many photos of current …
One of the many photos of current…
The Earthquake memorial. The golde…
The Earthquake memorial. The gold…
...as does Turkmenbashi
...as does Turkmenbashi
The royal palace (or some other bu…
The royal palace (or some other b…
Billboard depicting yet another fo…
Billboard depicting yet another f…
Soviet war memorial
Soviet war memorial
The streets of Ashgabat - this who…
The streets of Ashgabat - this wh…
Presidential palace
Presidential palace
Some workmen having a break at the…
Some workmen having a break at th…
Some workmen having a break at the…
Some workmen having a break at th…
The new university building
The new university building
New monuments and buildings being …
New monuments and buildings being…
Even the bus stops are over the top
Even the bus stops are over the top
The Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Olympi…
The Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Olymp…
The buildings of Berzingi
The buildings of Berzingi
Berzingi
Berzingi
Monument to the Independence of Tu…
Monument to the Independence of T…
The five-headed eagle is the Turkm…
The five-headed eagle is the Turk…
Some local girls at the Independen…
Some local girls at the Independe…
Statues at the Independence Monume…
Statues at the Independence Monum…
Statues at the Independence Monume…
Statues at the Independence Monum…
Berzingi, seen from the Independen…
Berzingi, seen from the Independe…
Berzingi
Berzingi
Independence Monument, with Turkme…
Independence Monument, with Turkm…
Statues guarding the Independence …
Statues guarding the Independence…
Statues guarding the Independence …
Statues guarding the Independence…
Yet another ministry, or general b…
Yet another ministry, or general …
Central Ashgabat seen from the Ind…
Central Ashgabat seen from the In…
The building of the Ministry of He…
The building of the Ministry of H…
Start of the Walk of Health
Start of the Walk of Health
I think this building is supposed …
I think this building is supposed…
and another building
and another building
and another
and another
Turkmenbashis World of Fairytales
Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales
Turkmenbashis World of Fairytales
Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales
Turkmenbashis World of Fairytales
Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales
I like it how The Plunger is consi…
I like it how The Plunger is cons…
Turkmenbashis World of Fairytales
Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales
Yet another monument
Yet another monument
The horse monument. Pure bred Turk…
The horse monument. Pure bred Tur…
The House of Free Creativity was b…
The House of Free Creativity was …
The rollercoaster in Turkmenbashi…
Ashgabat
photo by: Vlindeke